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Marty Baron interview: ‘Getting at the truth requires hard work… but there is such a thing as the truth. It’s not just a matter of opinion, not about who has the biggest megaphone’

From Big Tech’s responsibility and power to why politicians trash the press: Marty Baron, the celebrated and storied executive editor of The Washington Post, who retires Sunday, spoke to Anant Goenka

Written by Anant Goenka | New Delhi |
Updated: February 28, 2021 3:08:38 pm
Marty Baron

ANANT GOENKA: Thank you for speaking to us on your last working day at the Post… one of the most impactful, meaningful editorships in modern history…

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MARTY BARON: It’s been an amazing time. I’ve been involved in some epic stories, most recently, with the (Donald) Trump administration. Prior to that, the National Security Agency and the documents leaked by Edward Snowden; in Boston, of course, the investigation of the Catholic Church (that became the basis of the 2015 movie Spotlight); then the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida… It’s just been one big story after the next… not to mention America’s wars overseas… 9/11, of course, a very eventful career, that’s for sure.

I asked (Apple CEO) Tim Cook in 2016, when he visited India, what advice would he give to a 29-year-old third-generation publisher of a newspaper company. And he said, look at the way The Washington Post is reinventing its business. You’ve been consistently profitable for over five years now, you have 3 million subscribers. How much of the credit goes to Trump?

Well, I would say, not entirely, but a fair amount. It was clear that people were concerned about what he might do in government. I wanted to make sure that we were vigilant, that we held him to account, that we got at the facts. (People) were very worried about the stability of American institutions and their capacity to hold Donald Trump to account. They felt Congress was not going to do it. They were worried about the courts, given that he was making so many appointments. They were looking to the press to do that job, because there was no other institution in the United States that could do it. I think people were willing to support us because they knew that that’s what we were going to do.

And, Marty, having an adversarial relationship with the government has been one of the cornerstones of an independent press…

I don’t particularly like the word adversarial. It becomes, at times, adversarial. We don’t strive necessarily to be adversarial; we strive to gather facts, put them in proper context, and tell people what’s actually going on.

In doing that, sometimes, and frequently, actually, we find ourselves in conflict with (the) government, which likes to keep such information secret. And, it’s not only (the) government, by the way, it’s other powerful institutions that wish to do so (too).

Our view is that the public in a democracy has a need and right to know certain kinds of information. That it’s necessary for a democracy to have an informed public. Our job is to try to provide that information and that brings us into conflict with (the) government. It’s not that we set out to have conflict with (the) government, it’s just that we find ourselves in conflict with (the) government because we are doing our jobs.

The Post was involved, in no small part, in uncovering some 30,000 examples of misinformation, false or inaccurate statements, attributed to Trump. Were you surprised that despite all this, he ran a very close race?

I wasn’t surprised by it, it was clear that he always had a large base of support in the United States, it was also clear that they (his supporters) weren’t getting their information from The Washington Post, The New York Times, or from CNN, or the major, or most of the major networks. They were getting their information from Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax. All of those had become, essentially, political arms of the administration.

We have a very polarised society. So, it was not at all surprising to me that Trump would draw a tremendous amount of support…I recognise that he has a strong and amazing capacity to draw voters, people who have never voted before.

Marty Baron on public criticism

This ability we see all over the world… to de-legitimise anything that isn’t populist, any opinion that isn’t blessed with a massive mandate.

It’s deeply concerning. It was clear during (Trump’s) first campaign for the presidency that he would seek to marginalise and de-legitimise the press… That he would try to instill in his supporters the view that he is the sole source of truth, that everybody else is lying, everything else is a hoax, that the only person you can believe is him.

And, he’s had some success with that, I have to say… He’s tried to portray us as the Opposition party, he used the term that we were the ‘enemy of the people’. He used the term ‘traitor’… he worked very hard to turn the public against the mainstream press so that they don’t believe anything we say, so they don’t even bother to read us. He’s obviously had considerable success in that regard. We see that in other countries as well. He’s a model for leaders and other countries.

Now that Trump has lost the election, is that trend going to stop? Or, do you think the Trump template on how to engage with the press is here to stay?

I think that will be with us for quite some time. But we also have to think about (how) that will always be true of people at the extremes, both on the right and on the left, that they will have their own sources of information. But there’s a broad middle, independent voters who are more open and who do not necessarily feel that everything that Donald Trump says is true. They are receptive to other sources of information and evidence. If it turns out that we have evidence, and it’s conclusive, these people will acknowledge it.

It’s always at the margins that you’re not going to convince everybody, you’re not going to get 100 per cent. The question is, can you get another 10 per cent, 15 or 20 per cent? That, to me, is what’s important. About 35 per cent of the people in this country believe in the most bizarre of conspiracy theories… they think 9/11 was an inside job or executed by Israel… It’s always going to be about 35 per cent of the American public that simply doesn’t believe anything they read from a mainstream press outlet. They believe some conspiracy theory they encountered on the internet that affirms their pre-existing point of view.

What do you think of the fact that now platforms such as Google, Facebook or Twitter are also being called out for not taking a side or being seen to have taken a side in this polarised world?

I don’t think they’re taking a side, I think they are really struggling with trying to figure out their role. It’s not something that they gave a lot of thought to before they built their businesses. Now, they’re having to grapple with these issues after they built these businesses.

News organisations like ours, we kind of know what we stand for. We’ve had a lot of experience with public criticism. We just have experience with this in a way that many of these tech platforms don’t. We’re seeing them struggle with this because these are not issues they thought about all that much in the past. I don’t know what the exact answers are for them. But ultimately, they will just have to take a stand and stick with it.

Marty Baron on editing skills

On the relationship between Silicon Valley Big Tech platforms and publishers around the world, there’s so much that’s happened, especially after the Australian legislation. Do you believe that platforms have a responsibility towards some kind of a check on inaccurate, fake news on their interfaces?

Yes, I do believe they have a responsibility… anybody who has power, has responsibility, you can’t have power without responsibility. I believe tech platforms have, till recently, been willing and eager to take the revenue and not assume any responsibility, they felt the responsibility lies elsewhere.

What we’re discovering is that they bear responsibility, like everybody else who holds power. So, they have to figure out how to exercise that responsibility. That’s what they’re struggling with right now.

What about their responsibility towards publishers?

I think there’s an issue of them making money off our content. Now, it’s also clear that they generate revenue for us, simply by making our content available to people all over the world in a way that it was not available before. If we didn’t have Google, if we didn’t have Facebook, far fewer people would see our work, far fewer people would subscribe. For us, we’d be a physical paper in the Washington area. I think we also have to recognise that they have provided something of value to us but we’ve also provided something of value to them. So, the question is, what should the revenue share be?

How do you read what happened in Australia? It was quite unprecedented to have the Prime Minister of Australia calling, you know, Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi and other world leaders, bringing attention to his face-off with Big Tech…

It was a struggle for power there. Facebook was exercising its power… it’s only understandable that the Australian government will try to fight back. This is how policy gets made. And, ultimately, they’ve reached an accommodation. I think that’s what we are going to see in other countries… this struggle, over power and revenue. Ultimately, there will be some sort of agreement that people can live with.

Governments are getting involved in regulating social media. Germany, Australia, we had some new rules in India very recently. In the US, over 40 states have filed suits… Does any good come out of governments getting involved?

Not a lot of good, to be honest. I don’t think, as you pointed out, most people in governments really understand… or most politicians have any real understanding of the digital world. They barely understand the device in their pockets.

But we have to be really careful about governments getting involved in deciding what’s true and what’s false. Would I have wanted the Trump administration telling us, telling the tech companies, what’s true, and what’s false and what should be carried and what shouldn’t be carried? No, I would not. Would I want the (Joe) Biden administration doing that? I wouldn’t want that either. I don’t want governments doing that.

Some people say, well, do we want the tech companies doing that? That’s a serious question. But there’s a greater capacity for alternative sites. So there’s competition for Facebook, for Google — different tech companies can have different policies if they wish. It’s not an easy question. I do not want governments sticking their nose in all of this.

Do you think it was smart on January 6, given the Capitol Hill incident, for social media to censor Trump, then a sitting president?

I think it was a reasonable policy decision. He was spreading so much disinformation, misinformation and lies, it was having a toxic impact on our election system. We saw some of the consequences of that, and the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

There were a lot of regulators around the world who realised the amount of power a few people in Silicon Valley had… to make it difficult for Trump to communicate to his voters.

I think that’s a mis-impression. He can go on Fox News anytime he wants, One America News Network (OANN), Newsmax. Many of those are simply propaganda arms for the administration and he communicates directly with his followers in that manner. They have made their policy decision about what they’re going to do, which is to basically act as stenographers and an echo chamber for the Trump administration. Why can’t other institutions make their own policy decision?

Marty Baron on Jeff Bezos

Do you see the Biden administration taking a stronger view on social media, doing more regulation to the tech platforms than was earlier done?

Obviously, there’s no fondness for the tech platforms among the Democrats, among people on the left. They criticise the tech platforms from the other end of the ideological spectrum. So, the tech companies are a bit in the middle here. They get criticism from all sides. But there’s no fondness among people in the Biden administration or among leading Democrats in Congress for the tech platforms, that’s for sure.

Traditionally, the US government has always provided a strong support for American businesses outside the US. Will it be the same for Google, Facebook or a Tesla, as it has been for a GE, Pepsi or Boeing?

Will the US administration advocate for tech platforms in the way that it does for, let’s say, major manufacturers in the United States? My guess is for the most part, no, they won’t. They are looking to other countries, looking to Europe (to see) how they might regulate tech companies. They are less likely to be leaning on these other countries to go lightly on the tech platforms.

What do you make of the current trend of pop stars, who may have more followers than The Post, putting out tweets on current affairs, be it Rihanna or Trevor Noah.

I’m famous for being very nervous about social media activity… Look, when we publish things in our paper or online, we have editors involved, we take a lot of care with what we do. There are layers of review. It’s really difficult to do (all that) on social media. I think it’s important that journalists who are participating in social media exercise restraint in the same way that they would if they were publishing it in our publication online or in print.

I worry that there are a lot of people who are not editing themselves at all. They don’t recognise that the way they say things and the things that they say on social media reflect unfavourably on their institution and seem to be representative of what the institution wants to do. The public looks at them as a reflection of the institution (when) they are acting on their own.

(As for pop stars’ interventions), it’s not going to stop. The public has to decide whether this is a credible or not a credible source. Is this a person who knows what he or she is talking about, or not?

Going back to the business of news, how has (Amazon CEO) Jeff Bezos’s ownership helped The Post evolve into this digital-first, digital-friendly organisation.

Jeff’s acquisition had a profound impact on The Washington Post, because immediately after acquiring us, he changed our strategy. We focussed on the government, we focussed on politics. But other than that, we focussed on this region around Washington. He said we needed to become national and even international, and that we had an ideal opportunity to do that, for several reasons. One, we were in the nation’s capital; two, we had the name of The Washington Post, which could be leveraged to a national and international level. And, three, we had this history, this tradition of shining a light in dark corners that defined our identity going back to Watergate.

That was our brand and we had an identity, and, now, we had the opportunity in the digital era. He said, you have taken all the pain of the internet, you’ve suffered all the financial losses, it’s destroyed every pillar of your industry, but you haven’t taken the gift that the internet has to offer you. That is worldwide distribution at virtually no additional cost. So, you should take that gift and move quickly.

This idea of independent journalism being funded by benevolent billionaires worked at The Post. Do you think it’s a model that can be replicated in other parts of the world?

I think it has limited applicability to the rest of the world. I mean, there are only so many people who are as wealthy as he is, who even want to own a media outlet or have any interest in owning it, who are willing to grant their newsrooms the kind of independence and integrity that they require in order to be credible sources of information.

Jeff really has stood up against a lot of pressure. He has, personally, (shown) total integrity with respect to our newsroom and I am grateful for that. That can’t be the model for all media around the world or even all media within the United States. There just aren’t enough people like that.

We were lucky. But I do think that there are some other lessons that need to be drawn from this. First of all, to come up with a clear strategy… and an idea that’s workable. For us, that made all the difference in the world. The other is that there does need to be an investment that allows us to make that transition from a printing era to a digital era… without destroying the product as it exists. Because, ultimately, people are going to pay for the reporting, they are going to pay for original, high-quality reporting — that is what attracts subscriptions. So you can’t deprive the newsroom of the resources to do that kind of original reporting. Somehow, you have to build a bridge to the future. That’s what Jeff was able to do for us. We’re not treated as a charity, we are a self-sustaining business.

It’s been said that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. You yourself are an institution. As you leave The Post, what kind of a Marty shadow does the newsroom have?

That’s a hard one for me to answer. But I hope people remain dedicated to our core mission. That is stated in the very first principle on the wall when you walk into our newsroom. It is ‘to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained’. That recognises that getting at the truth is hard. It requires hard work, it’s a process. The truth can be elusive, but it also recognises that there is such a thing as the truth. There are such things as facts. It’s not just a matter of opinion, not just a matter of who holds power, it’s not just a matter of who has the biggest megaphone.

There is actually something called objective fact and objective reality. Our job is to get at that, to publish that as best we can, and not to be deterred, not to be pressured, not to be distracted. And, to continue to do that, regardless of the attacks and pressure that we come under. I hope that is the first principle of The Washington Post and I hope my shadow is reflective of that first principle.

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